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The Hippie Dog Whistle Work Ethic Silent-Majority Counter-Offensive

The Hippie Dog Whistle Work Ethic Silent-Majority Counter-Offensive

Following up on my last post, I was searching for coverage of Ronald Reagan’s infamous “strapping young buck” comment from 1976 and found this wonderful commentary by Ian Haney López on Bill Moyers’s show.

In his book, Dog Whistle Politics, López mentions the “work ethic” angle several times.

The narratives promoted alike by the ethnic turn and racial-demagogues—a lack of work ethic, a preference for welfare, a propensity toward crime, or their opposites— reinvigorated racial stereotypes, giving them renewed life in explaining why minorities lagged behind whites…. they became the staples of political discourse, repeated ad nauseam by politicians, think tanks, and media.

 …

In accord with the stories spun by dog whistle politicians, many whites have come to believe that they prosper because they possess the values, orientations, and work ethic needed by the self-making individual in a capitalist society. In contrast, they have come to suppose that nonwhites, lacking these attributes, slip to the bottom, handicapped by their inferior cultures and pushed down by the market’s invisible hand, where they remain, beyond the responsibility, or even ability, of government to help. 

Many older whites nostalgically pine for the days when a solid work ethic meant a good job, a decent home, a new car every few years, an affordable college education for the kids, and a nice vacation by the lake or seashore every August.

Dog whistle politics (as opposed to overt racist rhetoric) got its start with George Wallace’s 1968 presidential campaign. Wallace addressed his speeches to the proverbial hard-working, tax-paying, church-going, law-abiding, gun-toting patriotic citizen:

The “Work Ethic” Hoax

The “Work Ethic” Hoax

The story has been told that Martin Luther invented the doctrine of the “calling” and that John Calvin (“my friends call me Jean”) intensified it with his doctrine of predestination. Subsequent pastoral literature softened the predestination blow with the Protestant ethic that working hard and succeeding would show that you were one of the elect. Max Weber told that story. 

It was, of course, a fable. But that is beside the point. Max Weber’s fable wallowed in relative academic obscurity and sports clichés until… [wait for it]… 1971 when Dick Nixon dusted it off as a cudgel to bludgeon those folks driving around in their Welfare Cadillacs — we all know who they are — and the nattering nabobs of negativism enabling them. Pure backlash dog whistle. 

“Keep religion out of it,” Nixon told a speechwriter who labeled it “the Protestant ethic” for a Labor Day address in 1971, “Let’s just call it the work ethic.”

I would like you to join me in exploring one of the basic elements that gives character to a people and which will make it possible for the American people to earn a generation of prosperity in peace.